Radio Hits One: Playing Armchair A&R With The Singles From 2011's Biggest And Best Albums
The two big formats that have long ruled over popular music are the single and the album. They have a great duality between them: the song and the collection; the sliver and the whole; the appetizer and the main course. Albums are the full-length format long considered pop music's ultimate artistic medium, while the hit single is the galvanizing force that sells albums while blaring from millions of radios, televisions, YouTube windows and cell phones. I've long been fascinated by a slightly more ephemeral concept that exists somewhere in between: the singles campaign for an album. The way an artist or label chooses which songs are released to radio to promote an album, and the sequence in which they're released, often forms a kind of narrative just as much as the running order of the album itself.
Of course, that narrative is often largely about how successful those songs are as singles, and they are often chosen and judged purely by their charting potential. But at its best, a singles campaign is as much an art form as it is a marketing tool. There are formulas and clichéslead with the stylistic curveball and follow it with the surefire hit; start with an uptempo first single, then bring out the ballad second; and, of course, throw songs at the wall for the fourth and fifth singles if the artist has the profile and the promotional budget to go that far.
Just as sports fans often play Monday morning quarterback, analyzing how their home team did in the big game and how they would've made better choices, music fans are prone to imagining a more ideal world, one in which their favorite albums had better production and their cult favorites were worldwide superstars. For me, that often means speculating on and critiquing which songs were released as singles from an album.
In the pre-Internet age, I used to enjoy buying a new album still on its first single and taking note of what other songs were listed on the sticker on the cover, then waiting to see if those did indeed become the follow-up singles. Now, it's a little easier to find out what the next single from a given album will be, but even that decision can be switched at the last minute. Here's a look at some of the 2010 and 2011 albums that have been spinning off hits for the past few months, and an analysis of their singles campaigns as both commercial accomplishments and artistic statements.
Foo Fighters, "Bridge Burning"
The Foo Fighters' Wasting Light and its leadoff cut "Rope" have been among my favorite albums and singles in mainstream rock this year, with only a couple of momentum killers scattered through the album's otherwise wall-to-wall run of anthemic, uptempo stadium rock. When I first got the album, I would've been happy with just about any song from Light as a singleexcept the sappy buzzkills that were actually promoted by the label. Both the second single "Walk" and the recent follow-up "These Days" are overly sentimental tracks with long guitar-and-vocals intros before the rhythm section kicks in. Who really wants to listen to the Foo Fighters without drums? Here's hoping the current U.K. single "Arlandria" gets released here, or that they throw a bone to hard rock radio with "Bridge Burning." The chances of that happening are slim, though; pretty much every Foo Fighters album has had three big radio hits, and not four.
Lady Gaga, "Hair"
Lady Gaga's album cycle for Born This Way is winding down, and she seems somehow far less exciting and important than she did a year ago. It's tempting to blame the album's singles. But in retrospect, I'm not sure what I would've done differently with Born, which is consistently enjoyable even if it doesn't contain any four-minute masterpiece on the level of "Bad Romance." The divisive title track and largely despised "Judas" were just fine by me, and "The Edge of Glory" is one of my favorite songs of the year. I think instead of "Yoü And I" or the upcoming "Marry The Night," I think "Hair" might have been a better release, but that may be affected by how much I enjoy the Gaga/Clarence Clemons dynamic on that song and "Edge."
Jay-Z & Kanye West, "Niggas In Paris"
A successful singles campaign I've been pretty confounded by is the one for Jay-Z and Kanye West's Watch The Throne. The album was launched so poorly with the initial lead single "H*A*M," which awkwardly matched the two superstars with producer of the moment Lex Luger, that the follow-up, "Otis," seemed more like a calculatedly reassuring return to familiar Roc-A-Fella soul beats than an actual good song. When the album was released, "That's My Bitch" immediately leaped out ot me as an obvious hit, but I thought maybe the explicit title would keep it from being released to radio. That seems like an irrelevant concern now that "Niggas In Paris," which I still regard as flat-out annoying, is played on urban radio around the clock.